In early 2019, orthodontist Dr. Ben Winters signed up for a brand-new social media platform, TikTok, to attract new patients and grow a struggling practice.
Three years and millions of followers later, Dr. Winters (a.k.a. @thebentist) has redefined what dental education looks like in the digital age. Dr. Winters now tours with TikTok celebrities like Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae and operates as an ambassador for the wildly popular social media platform.
We caught up with Dr. Winters to talk about how he capitalized on a little-known social media platform to build connections with young patients—and created a community of “super patients” in the process.
To date, you have 10.5 million followers on TikTok and nearly 2 million followers on YouTube. That's pretty wild. How did this all get started?
Dr. Winters: “Yeah, it's been pretty wild for sure! It's been a blessing and a half. It's allowed us to do a lot of things that I did not think we would be able to do, as fast as we're doing them, which is great.
I got out of residency and I had my first job and I was going to open up practice in Tulsa, and then this corporation reached out to me and said, 'Hey, we have this opportunity where we have a couple of practices we need help turning around.' I said yes because I didn't have anything planned yet—it was a good place to start and hone your skills and all that type of stuff.
When I got there on the first day, I realized the situation we were in. Nobody in town wanted to refer to us. They wouldn't even take my calls to go to lunch! I thought, 'I need to figure out a way to get patients in here. This is going to be impossible.' And I thought the only other way we could promote our office [without spending money] was social media.”
#duet with @how.thingss.workk root canals are crazy would you get one ? #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #rootcanal♬ original sound - ???????☠️
How did you find your social media “style”? Where did you get ideas for new content?
Dr. Winters:“Luckily as an orthodontist, I'm around a lot of kids all day long. I started watching and noticed [young patients] were all so entwined with something on their phone—and it wasn't Instagram, it wasn't YouTube, it wasn't Facebook or Snapchat. When I asked, they showed me the app they were using, which was TikTok.”
“I looked at TikTok and it reminded me a lot of Vine—which was a social media app that was seven-second videos—and I thought, 'yeah, I can do this.' I noticed that people were reusing the same trends in songs and just doing their own version of the trend. I thought, 'You know, I'm going do this trend and put a dental spin on it.' So, I talked about getting your braces on or off for the first video.”
“When we posted it, I thought 'Maybe we'll get a couple hundred followers next week or something.' The next day was very busy, and I didn't even think about it until lunch. When I looked at [the post], we had a million likes and we had already gained 100,000 followers in one day.”
What was that experience like? What went through your mind?
Dr. Winters: “It blew my mind. I was like, 'There is something going on here—am I famous now? Do I get to go to the beach? Am I a celebrity?' [laughs] At that point I thought, we've got to continue doing this. We were the first professionals on the app. We were the first adults on the app. The app started late November of 2018, I came on in early January of 2019, so it was only an app for two months by the time that I entered.”
It sounds like you were ready to go all-in on TikTok advertising, but you eventually struck out on your own. How did that happen?
Dr. Winters: “The [leadership for my practice] were little bit older—they didn't really believe that social media was a worthy investment based on their own experiences. I decided to start my own channel under The Bentist and it blew up just as easily as the first one.”
“People were so interested because they were so used to just seeing 13-year-old kids dancing around. Once [TikTok users] saw me, they were like, 'Holy crap, this is an adult on here? That's so crazy.' On top of that, they all had braces because that was the age group at the time. It just resonated a lot with them.”
If you ever chip your tooth on a jaw harp… do this ?#learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #teeth ♬ original sound - The Bentist
The style of your videos has changed a lot over the years, but they all seem to be very “tuned in” to the style and trends on TikTok. How do you keep up?
Dr. Winters: “So one of the most important tips I can give your readers is to always learn, adapt, and reverse engineer success. We're busy people—especially dentists and orthodontists. We don't have time to create a hundred different styles and versions and hope one sticks.”
“For me, I spent time watching TikTok, and I followed the trends and what I saw was successful and unsuccessful. In the beginning, it was these little sketch comedy videos with music in the background. Then you had Charli D'Amelio and that whole crew come in around June of 2019—about six months after me. Then got popular when they started creating their own dances to the music. I started doing those dancing trends and that was blowing up. Then I noticed couple's content was doing well, so I started doing more content with my wife.”
“I started to notice that a lot of the most popular didn't have background audio, they had original audio instead. At the time, I was doing ad spots for my sponsor F'real Milkshakes. I thought, 'Oh, I could do like a braces life hack thing,' You can't have candy when you're in braces, but you could have a Sour Patch Kid Milkshake! I did a braces life hack video and that one got 4 million likes and 30 million views. It blew up. It was one of the biggest videos I'd ever had and it was an ad, which is insane.”
“Recently, I'd seen a lot of people doing reactions that were expanding upon videos—that's where I'm at today. It's nice because you're finding videos that are already tried-and-true viral. I don't have to worry about if they're a good video or not—then I expand upon them further, which just creates even more virality.”
Based on that experience, what do you believe is the “key” to social media success?
Dr. Winters: “It's honestly just watching and reverse engineering other people's success—seeing how you can relate those things back to what you're doing. Dentists get frustrated when they try 101 different things and none of them work. Or you could just say, 'Hey, this style of content works really well. I can just do that.'”
Nerds gummy clusters VS Braces… who's gonna win ? #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #candy #braces #nerds♬ original sound - The Bentist
How has your experience and popularity on social media changed the way you communicate with patients in your practice?
Dr. Winters: “Surprisingly, it's lowered the amount of communication I'd have to have about these things—and the reason is that most of the people finding us are fans of our YouTube or TikTok or Instagram. When I'm talking through things, [the patient] will answer the questions for me! They'll say things like, 'I know you're not supposed to use Ibuprofen, you're supposed to use Tylenol,' or, 'I remember watching that from the video—I'll make sure that I wear my rubber bands since I know that it takes eight hours for the rubber bands to start working.' They know everything they need to know before I even get the braces on!”
“It's like I'm creating a group of super patients. [chuckle] They know what they're supposed to do. They're happy to be here, and they want their straight teeth. Kids like to learn, so I think relating these funny, crazy reaction videos from TikTok is a great way to get in front of them. They're going to watch that video that I react to, and normally they're going to watch it and think, 'Dang, I wonder what caused that.'”
“The second I [create a reaction video], it satisfies that curiosity for them—and makes them more likely to like it, share it, or send it to a friend who might have seen it or might have braces. Overall, it's a really smart way to do it.”
I have to ask because you're an orthodontist that spends lots of time online. What is your take on the new trend of at-home aligners that is taking over social media right now?
Dr. Winters: “I will say that people do need to understand that at-home aligners are not the same as the aligners you get in a dental office. The way that I normally tell my patients is, 'If you have to drive across the country and I'll give you either a Ferrari or a bicycle with one wheel, which one are you going to take?” I'll tell patients that that's essentially the difference between doctor-supervised orthodontics and an at-home aligner system.”
“At-home aligners don't do any x-rays and there's no real doctor supervision. If you have periodontal disease or other oral health issues and you're moving teeth, you're likely to lose some teeth or they'll end up in a place that they shouldn't be. Secondly, at-home aligner systems use an earlier version of a plastic vs. the newer force aligner system. The rubber bands are not allowed, so no jaw issues can be fixed and no misalignments can be corrected in your bite or mid-line. You're basically getting a retainer that can move your teeth slightly in one direction.”
“Sure, it may work for somebody with orthodontic relapse—maybe they have one tooth that shifted or a very select few cases—but the cases that I see coming back in for treatment are people who just aren't happy with the results. If you really want straight teeth, go to a dentist or an orthodontist. They'll do it correctly and make sure you're safe, that your bite is okay and that you don't have any occlusal issues.”
#stitch with @carlasophiegouveia your gum/teeth issue is actually easy to fix! Hope this helps! #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #gummysmile #teeth♬ original sound - The Bentist
For other doctors who want to use social media to speak directly to patients—especially today, when misinformation is so common—what would be your recommendations?
“You don't have to have a crazy personality like me to be successful on social media.”
Dr. Winters: “I deal with misinformation on the daily on TikTok. I have it a little easier because people follow me, so I just go through my mentions and see what people tag me in to find the videos I react to. But you could very, very easily just scroll through different social media hashtags to find videos that maybe pique your interest or want to speak to. Then reiterate and connect it back to what you do.”
“For instance, I might find a video where someone's using charcoal toothpaste, and they're saying that it's amazing for your teeth. I might come in and say, 'Well, make sure it's an enamel-safe charcoal, because if you're using a regular charcoal toothpaste, it's going to grind your enamel down and cause sensitivity.' I think it's a great way to use a viral video to bridge that gap and then reiterate accurate information.
“You don't have to have a crazy personality like me to be successful on social media. I was the first healthcare professional on TikTok and I've helped probably 10 to 20 health professionals get on that app, and they're all doing great. Some have drier personalities; some have quirky personalities. Some just speak like a doctor would speak to a patient.”
“I'm definitely a little more animated when I'm on social media, just because you have to be on all the time. I'm a little bit calmer in person, but I still have spurts of that person on social media—especially the first time I see a patient or somebody who I know is a fan. But I'm like everybody in the world. I get tired too, you know. [chuckle]”
“For the most part, I am that guy pretty much all the time. The reason I became an orthodontist is because I wanted to be paid to be a kid every day, so I love it. It's literally the best job. I have the two best jobs ever.”